By: Calum Rutter
Many public officials in South Africa abandoned procurement procedures amid the Covid-19 crisis, investigators have found while looking into corruption allegations.
Beginning in July, the Special Investigation Unit has been looking into 10.5bn rand (£500m) of contracts relating to the pandemic, and has released a report providing an update on its work.
The report found officials used the ‘national state of disaster’ declared by the government to undertake all procurement on an ‘emergency’ basis, without compliance with normal regulations.
But even emergency procurement has certain minimum requirements that aim, as far as possible, to ensure fair, transparent and cost-effective results – and these were not followed either, the report found.
Many officials in South Africa’s provincial governments were found to have “merely rubber-stamped decisions and gave effect to unlawful instructions from officials more senior than them”.
This “resulted in a complete break-down of the checks and balances protection normally afforded by the principle of segregation of duties”, the report said.
Many PPE providers were found to have only been registered during February and March, and so had no demonstrable track records.
Some companies were not even registered; some providers operated in sectors entirely unrelated to PPE; and in some cases product specifications and expert opinions were ignored, resulting in inappropriate PPE being purchased.
Political pressure was also found to have played a role in procurement, and the names of providers were determined before supply chain management processes began.
In some cases, “no attempt to negotiate” prices with suppliers resulted in overpayment for goods, while in others suppliers used front companies or split bids to win multiple contracts.
The investigators also found evidence, including documents, computers and mobile phones, had been destroyed, and they regularly dealt with uncooperative officials during their work.
South African president Cyril Ramaphosa called the report “disturbing”.
“As a country that has become far too used to hearing stories about corruption, little could have prepared us for seeing, in detail, the lengths to which some among our people have gone to steal at a time when our nation is facing the worst health emergency in modern times,” he said in his weekly online address.
Ramaphosa promised those involved “will be dealt with harshly and appropriately”, and added that similar action was being taken against people and companies who carried out fraud in a government employment relief scheme.
“It is clear that those who have made profits from the Covid-19 disaster, and those who have colluded with government officials, took advantage of the urgency of the moment to disregard National Treasury and provincial treasury instructions,” said the president.
“This was especially the case in the earliest days of the pandemic when PPE and other equipment were in short supply.
“It has shown the need for a coordinated approach to fighting corruption that brings in several organs of state.”
The SIU investigations continue.